As Germany prepares to mark 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, 76-year old Burkhart Veigel is still busy organising guided tours through the German capital, taking visitors back to the time when he helped hundreds flee to the West.
A medical student in West Berlin when the wall was built in 1961, he helped people escape the East by digging tunnels, hiding them in cars or forging passports.
Today, only one of the dozens of escape tunnels is still accessible, next to the former border line on Heidelberger Straße.
Veigel says he acted out of conviction because of what he calls his “freedom gene”.
“I just don’t want history to be forgotten, people need to know that back then – and it’s not so long ago – just a few meters away, there was this truly absurd dictatorship, where you could not think or say what you wanted, where nothing was discussed. That is simply unthinkable for me,” he says.
Veigel was not the only so-called “escape helper”, but he was certainly one of the most successful. In all, he helped some 650 people flee the East.
“Out of a total of 75 tunnels in Berlin – of which only 19 actually worked – some 300 people managed to escape. Another 800 fled through the sewers, and around 10,000 managed to escape with forged documents. In the Stasi files about me, it is written that my forged passports didn’t look any different to the real ones. I was a master of my trade, I knew what I was doing,” says Veigel.
When the wall finally came down on 11 November 1989, Veigel was living and working as an orthopedist in Stuttgart. He watched history unfold on his TV, like so many other people around the world.
“Of course, I cried for hours in front of my TV, because I was terribly moved. That was exactly what I wanted, I wanted freedom for the people. Suddenly, they were free. It was the most important experience of my life. And the next day, when my kids asked me why I was crying like that, I told them for the first time what I had done back then,” he explains.
The Stasi – the GDR’s secret police – placed him on a death list and twice tried to kidnap him. For the safety of his family, he decided to leave Berlin.
His book, ‘Wege durch die Mauer” (‘Ways through the Wall’), tells of his story and Burkhart Veigel continues to give lectures throughout Germany.